In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok's Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life. Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand's political system seemed to be settling down.
From the 1930s to the 1990s, Thailand had essentially been ruled by the armed forces, in alliance with the business elite and the royal family, which still wielded enormous power behind the facade of a constitutional monarchy. In 1992, however, with the Cold War over and a more assertive Bangkok middle class no longer willing to tolerate military rule, massive popular demonstrations ousted the military regime and replaced it with a respected civilian government.
Following the military's withdrawal in 1992, many Thais and outside observers thought the country would become a solid democracy. Thailand passed a progressive constitution in 1997, which guaranteed many rights and freedoms, created new national institutions to monitor graft, and strengthened political parties at the expense of the traditional unelected centers of power -- the palace, the military, big business, and the elite civil service. It also set the stage for elections in 2001 that were probably the freest in Thailand's history. Meanwhile, the Thai media utilized its new freedoms, along with new technologies such as the Internet and satellite television, to explore formerly taboo topics like political corruption and labor rights. The Thai Army's leaders vowed that they would respect civilian control and never engage in politics again. In its 1999 report, the international monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a "free" country -- one of only a handful of Asian countries receiving this designation.
Over the past six years, however, Democracy Monument and the area around it have come to look far different. As protests and riots have incessantly plagued the Thai capital, outbreaks of violence, and military repression of demonstrations, around the monument have, at times, left dead bodies lying just in front of it, blood splattered on the nearby pavement, and angry demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails laying waste to the surrounding streets. An informal shrine has sprung up in a place where the brains of one protester were splashed after security forces shot him two years ago. Meanwhile, all the political instability has had a serious long-term impact on Thailand's economy, though in the short term the economy has struggled through. Tourism is critical to the Thai economy, and the violence scared off visitors. Many foreign investors are rethinking their plans for Thailand as well.
If Thailand can collapse, it suggests that nearly any developing country's transition is less secure than it often appears. Since 2006, Thailand, once a poster child for democratization in the developing world, has undergone perhaps the most rapid and severest democratic regression in the entire world -- despite having achieved middle-income status and, prior to the reversal, having held multiple contested elections. Now Thailand's never-ending cycle of street protest, with the middle class and the poor pitted against each other in a fight for political power, paralyzes policymaking, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when the country is losing competitiveness compared with neighbors like Vietnam. The military has retaken enormous political power and constantly threatens another coup, while draconian new media laws have clamped down on a press and blogosphere that were once the most freewheeling in Asia. "It's only going to get worse from here now," one Thai official told me in December. "Either another coup or all-out war in the streets."
How could this have happened? How did one of the world's most promising democracies melt down so quickly? And what does Thailand's regression tell us about the strength -- or lack thereof -- of democracy in many developing countries? Indeed, Thailand suffers from several of the problems that have plagued other emerging democracies, such as Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela, and have led to their regression over the past five years -- a period that monitoring groups like Freedom House have marked as a global rollback of democracy.
Thailand's meltdown actually started a decade ago. In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist former telecommunications tycoon, was elected prime minister, primarily by the country's poorest citizens. Despite his goofy, gap-toothed smile, Thaksin was a savvy, mercurial, and powerful speaker, probably the best in Thai history, and he was also an Oscar-quality actor, capable of turning on his "listening mode" at any meeting, just as easily as he could scream at underlings.
Thailand's nascent judicial and bureaucratic institutions were too weak to control Thaksin's ambitions. He took advantage of his popularity to neuter the news media, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and viciously punish political opponents. When Thaksin was charged, early in his tenure, with concealing assets, he was acquitted by Thailand's top court in a very close decision. Following the verdict, several justices alleged that they had faced intense pressure from Thaksin's allies to acquit him.
Like other elected autocrats including Russia's Vladimir Putin, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and Thaksin's friend, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thaksin viewed democracy as merely a series of regular votes, after which the victor could use his electoral victories to crush all other challengers. "Thaksin was not a democrat. He might have held votes, but he didn't care at all about anything else that makes a democracy," said Surapong Jayanama, a longtime Thai official and diplomat. Thailand's media increasingly became more servile, and according to Human Rights Watch, Thaksin launched a "war on drugs" (Thailand has a major methamphetamine problem) that provided a convenient pretext for attacks on his opponents and that wound up with some 2,500 dead, often killed in staged shootouts or other suspicious encounters.
Still, Thaksin remained extremely popular among the Thai poor, the majority of voters in one of Asia's most unequal countries. Before him, no candidate had ever directly tried to empower the poor or provide them with voter education. Most of Thailand's elitist politicians had traditionally ignored or diluted the votes of the poor by vote-rigging and vote-buying, installing cabinets dominated by a small group of Bangkok-based technocrats.